Planners vs. Pantsers

A little blurb about the writing process, some info on Devilspawn, and a hint of life advice mixed in.

A common divide in the writing community is that of Planners and Pantsers. For those who are unaware what this divide is, the former is as their name suggests. They plan their story, outlining, creating all the major characters beforehand, and knowing, from the beginning, exactly what the story is about. Ultimately, things will change – perhaps things don’t go exactly as they expected, or they noticed plotholes that weren’t evident in their initial plan.

Pantsers, on the other hand, do the exact opposite. Their name is in reference to writing ‘by the seat of their pants.’ They do little to plan beforehand, simply starting to write and seeing where the story takes them. They create settings and characters as they emerge, often having a vague idea of where they’re going with things, but with no clear path to get there.

The divide between these two is most evident in that each often finds their own methodology superior. Planners will give new writers the advice to outline and plan everything beforehand. This will often result in a very hardlined story and the finished product will look very much like the first draft. Pansters will give new writers the advice to let the ideas flow through them – let themselves have a trash (or other, less savory, words, if they prefer) first draft. Then, write the second draft in such a way that it seems you knew exactly what you were doing the whole time – much like a Planner first draft. So, ultimately, it would seem, they end up at the same point, just with a different methodology to get there – a methodology dependent on the personality and thought processes of the author.

This can also be compared to the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI – a popular personality assessment) dichotomy of J and P (Judging and Perceiving, respectively). J’s, within the MBTI, are those who dutifully plan, creating schedules and itineraries, while P’s are those who tend to be more laid back about planning – they still plan, but, for those who strongly lean to the P side, every plan is penciled in; nothing is set in stone. It is known, among those who properly hold to the MBTI, that being strongly one way or the other is unhealthy, and, should someone strongly lean one or the other, they should practice moving more toward center, living in a more moderate manner. As stated by Aristotle (and, to a degree, Solomon before him and Paul after), the key to living a good life is moderation.

The same could easily be said of Planning and Pantsing. To lean more toward one side or the other will not result in an opportune story. Planning everything beforehand – having an outline, with specific characters, settings, and whatnot – disregards the minute, yet important, details that, on the surface, have little impact on the story, but can, in the end, inspire fantastic subplots or twists the author never would have thought of otherwise.

On the other hand, pantsing everything – writing with a vague direction – will result in unfinished stories, with a shoehorned ending that attempts tying up every plot thread in a neat little bow while leaving plenty of frayed ends and holes in the finished product that can be difficult to fix with new drafts without scrapping or adding entire chunks of a story.

I have, of course, seen ups and downs with both these methods in my own writing. My beta readers’ favorite characters (one of which ultimately became the actual main character in Devilspawn: Tara) wouldn’t have existed had I planned everything beforehand. As well, any time I try to plan something, I forget those small important details in the planning that are so important to the story itself. But, when I plan little, I find an issue with knowing where I’m going. With Devilspawn, I got to nearly 70,000 words in the first draft with no end in sight. I did as I previously described and shoehorned in an ending that was satisfactory to my beta readers of the time, but felt lackluster to myself. It felt like it was the ending of an entirely new book as I introduced new plot threads by tying them up. Ultimately, this is what led me to write Devilspawn as one novel in two books – the first book is what was the first two-thirds of the first draft, with more details and shorter, though more frequent, time jumps, made to be longer than the entirety of the first draft (the original first draft was around 85,000 words while the ‘first draft’ of Book I is over 90,000), and ultimately tying up the two main plot threads: Agathon’s search for his brother and his loved ones’ reaction to his disappearance. The second book will take on a couple subplots from the first book as main plots to round out the narrative itself.

As well, I’m much better at making up characters as I write than making them up beforehand. My original plan for Agathon and Sarah (a supporting character who was originally planned to take much more of a front-line role, similar to Tara) was hot garbage; both characters, and the ones I made up while writing (because when I was making the Satanists because my brain went ‘yes, 7, that’s a good number’ – should you read the book, you’ll notice I removed one as he turned out to be underutilized and didn’t serve a strong narrative purpose) turned out to be much better than the ones I prepared beforehand. I believe this to be the result of the fact that I was creating the lore for characters, rather than actually making character’s as described by Matthew Colville in his video on Lore vs Writing.

But I digress.

On the nature of Planners vs. Pantsers, I propose this: do both. If you are good at planning things out beforehand, do that – but not too much. Maybe plan a few chapters ahead as you’re writing (this is what I’m doing with Isle of the Dreamer, though the actual second chapter was never outlined at all and the outlined second chapter will be the actual third chapter). If you aren’t too good at planning things ahead (like me, see the paragraph above), write chapter by chapter, asking yourself at the end of each if you’re moving toward the end of your novel (if your novel is the sort which has a main plot). In both, remember to keep the end in mind.

So I suppose the two main takeaways can be found in the Bible: do everything in moderation, and keep the end in mind.